God’s Spark for the Haystack Prayer Meeting

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Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Three of Seven, November 19, 2006

In a few weeks, more than 20,000 college students from all across America will converge on St. Louis, Missouri to attend Urbana ’06, a triennial missionary convention sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Many of them will go on to devote their entire lives to serving Christ in large cities and remote villages around the world. That enormous gathering, and the careers in foreign missions that will flow from it, can be traced back 200 years to five students at Williams College, who met to pray in a meadow during a late summer storm in 1806, finding shelter under a haystack. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship rightly claims that it is a part of the legacy of what has come to be known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting. Church historian David W. Kling notes, “This incident . . . became the pivotal event in the launching of American Protestantism’s foreign missionary movement.”

Of the five students who met to pray on that summer day, one man, a resident of Torringford, Connecticut, stands out. He might be described as the spark God used to ignite the Haystack and spread missionary fervor throughout the nation and the world.

Religious revivals, now known as the Second Great Awakening, spread rapidly throughout northwestern Connecticut in 1798-1799. One of the first documented accounts of that movement comes to us from the pen of Rev. Samuel J. Mills of Torringford. He was affectionately known as “Father Mills,” and was one of the region’s greatest preachers and most influential pastors. His teenaged son, however, was a concern to him, resisting the God of his father and mother and rebelling against a theology that seemed to put God’s love and God’s justice in opposition to one another.

But the winds of revival had begun to blow in Torringford. “In the latter end of
August 1798,” the senior Mills wrote, “unusual religious appearances commenced in this place, especially among the young people.” One of those young people was Samuel Mills, Jr.. Young Mills soon concluded that love for all of humankind was indeed God’s central message, and that God had ordained the church to reach the peoples of every nation with the good news of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life through Christ to anyone who would receive it. He also became convinced that God wanted him to take that message to the world, fulfilling the dream of his mother, Esther Robbins Mills, who had boldly prayed, even before her son was born, that God would make a foreign missionary of him. Esther Mills’ vision for her son was remarkable, since in those days little if any thought was given to mission work outside of North America.

With a desire to serve God in distant places burning within him, young Mills was sent to Williams College for training. His circle of closest friends included Francis Robbins of Norfolk and Harvey Loomis of Torringford. Joined by Byram Green and James Richards, the young men met to pray, and to discuss the prospects of taking the Gospel to Asia. Under the famous haystack, during a torrential downpour accompanied by thunder and cracks of lightening, they committed their lives to serving God anywhere He might send them.

By 1808, the little prayer band for missions at Williams had grown and became an organized student movement called the Society of Brethren. Mills traveled from Williams to Andover College in Boston to organize a student missionary society there. In 1810, at the request of the Society of Brethren at Andover and at Mills’ urging, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was organized. In 1812 the first American missionaries were sent out to India.
Oddly enough, Mills was not among those who sailed for India in 1812, nor were any of his four friends. Robbins began doing home mission work in Vermont, before returning to Connecticut and promoting foreign missions from there. James Richards eventually sailed to India in 1815 and served there until his death seven years later. Harvey Loomis felt led to serve God in the State of Maine. Byram Green preached in New York, but after health concerns sidelined him from ministry he became a state senator and then a United States Congressman. What then became of Samuel Mills?

Mills’ greatest desire was to serve as a foreign missionary, but the American Board of Commissioners felt differently. They encouraged him instead to explore the possibilities of missions at home in New England, particularly among Native Americans. Mills’ accomplishments over the next few years were nothing short of amazing.
After graduating from Williams College, Mills began by enrolling for a year of study at Yale, with the purpose of completing his education and promoting missions among the students there. It was at Yale that he met Henry Obookiah, from Hawaii. Mills encouraged Obookiah’s vision of bringing Christianity to Hawaii, and shortly thereafter Obookiah’s tearful plea for missionaries to the South Pacific reached Yale’s president, who helped found the Foreign Missionary School in Cornwall, Connecticut to bring that vision to reality.

Samuel Mills went on to become a founding member of the American Bible Society and the Mariners Bible Society of New York. He traveled into the Mississippi River Valley and beyond, ministering to the Native Americans living in that region. In 1816 he worked in the slums and ghettos of New York City, combining social service among the poor with zealous proclamation of the message of the Gospel. Finally, in 1817, his call to a foreign land was fulfilled. Characteristically ahead of his time, Mills sailed on an expedition to West Africa with a vision of African Americans reaching indigenous Africans with the Gospel of Christ. On the return voyage, Mills fell ill and died at sea, at the age of only 35. His body did not return home, but his heart and passion for missions survive today.

Only two months ago, on September 10, 2006, a plaque was dedicated at Torringford Cemetery at the site where Mills’ father and mother are buried, in honor of their eminent son.
Next week we will look at how the Second Great Awakening affected Norfolk, the “ice box of Connecticut.”